With vast systems covering thousands of miles and employees and millions of passengers and dollars of economic progress riding the rails, railroads have long maintained their own emergency teams. Railroads have used rail cars for police protection, fire control, even as mobile medical centers. While these may seem like the types of cars dreamed up by a modeler, they all have a prototype. Over the next three weeks, we’ll look at some of these cars and the often-overlooked railroaders who use them.
Railroad police have a long and proud tradition dating back to the mid 19th Century. The railroads were one of the first big businesses in the United States which would cross multiple municipal and even state boundaries. As railroad companies paved new legal ground in the courts, they also developed their own police forces who could more effectively enforce regulations and protect passengers and cargo on their property and trains.
Railroad police perform many of the same duties as their partners on the streets. Police protect cargo from theft and damage, protect railroad yards, buildings and trains from vandalism, keep rail workers, passengers and the public safe on railroad property, respond to a wide variety of emergencies from grade-crossing accidents to derailments, promote safety and awareness among railroaders and the public alike and provide life-saving help wherever required. Railroad police have all the same authority to investigate, arrest and detain on railroad property that traditional police forces hold in cities.
In today’s security-conscious world, police are increasingly trained to look for new threats against the railroad infrastructure and its riders. Although the tactics and motives may change, the threats are nothing new to the Railroad Police.
In the early days of railroad police forces, many developed a hard reputation. Often partnering with private investigation and protection firms like the Pinkertons, railroad police protected the rails with whatever force was required. The battles between the railroad “bulls” and would-be train robbers are the stories of legend today. Through the rough years of the Great Depression, it was the hobo which often put the police in a difficult position of protecting the law while showing some compassion for those just drifting anywhere to find work or food. By the 1940s, the threats had shifted to potential sabotage.
To help cover ground and protect valuable shipments, many railroad police use dedicated cabooses. Southern Pacific had perhaps some of the best known of these cars, but they were found on other railroads as well. The Southern Pacific and possibly others also had a coach that could be used in the middle of longer consists.
Several railroad police departments also employed retired passenger cars which were converted into mobile training and command centers as well as for public outreach and awareness programs. Boxcars and cabooses have been used for these outreach roles as well.
In addition to the rail cars, railroad police use highway vehicles for their patrols. Everything from police cruisers to four-wheel drive trucks can be necessary depending on the work environment. In some notoriously rough neighborhoods, these patrol cars would pace slow-moving freights through town. These pace cars were also used in conjunction with officers on board trains to transport arrested suspects.
Keeping the rails safe is an enormous job. Thankfully, the dedicated men and women of the railroad police forces continue to make the rails one of the safest means of travel. Have you given them a presence on your model railroad?